In a recent post I argued that a powerful way to drive innovation at your tech company is to regularly put your best engineers in front of your best customers, under conducive circumstances.
Today, a few words about one such "conducive circumstance", one with multiple benefits that extend even beyond those described in my earlier note.
First, consider how your prospects and customers think about the contestants on your competitive playing field…
Whether explicitly or not, prospective customers tend to categorize you and your competitors along a scale of relevance and confidence from "vendor" on the low end to "trusted advisor" on the high, (with various shades of grey in between.) If your customer ranks you a vendor, you'll spend most of your selling time with a junior manager in the purchasing department. If, through your approach and successes over time, you've climbed the ladder to trusted advisor status, you'll be sitting down with top brass there over coffee on a regular basis.
In my experience, one of the most powerful techniques to climb that ladder to its highest rung is described below. Here's the recipe:
Step 1. Develop a comprehensive view of how your technologies and products will advance in the mid to long term future — a road map of ideas and innovation. Push your team to keep this refreshed with your latest and best thinking.
Step 2. Develop a compelling narrative describing how those advances can enable new solutions and benefits for your customers (and perhaps for their customers), expressed in your customer's own language and terms.
Step 3. Capture these thoughts into presentation materials (developed with a keen eye toward encouraging audience interaction).
Step 4. Use this presentation as a centerpiece in customer visits (your place or theirs). Invite your best and most creative engineers to the meeting. The presentation should be led by the most senior member of your team able to speak compellingly about the intersection of your future road map and emergent customer solution opportunities; this can be a teamed affair.
Step 6 (The most important). LISTEN to what your customers say in response to your ideas, and engage them in a robust dialogue around their perspectives. (This is where your engineers can add great value to the process.)
Properly done, the ensuing discussion will bring out your customers' best thinking about what they find truly powerful in your vision, what needs further tuning, and which "good ideas" may need to be re-directed or dropped.
Properly done, you'll learn from each other: they about what's possible just over the technology horizon, you about their thoughts regarding the future of their business.
Properly done, the ideas for your next great product will come out one of these sessions, and your engineers will be energized with enthusiasm and subtle insights.
Properly done, and repeated regularly, you'll come to be regarded as a thought leader. Combine thought leadership and flawless execution and, over time, you'll find yourself a Trusted Advisor.
There, wasn't that simple?
Well, no, not really. There's actually quite a bit to master here…
First, you better have something meaningful to say in these sessions. For that, you'll need to be an genuine innovator. (Note however that this technique creates a virtuous circle — the more you employ it, the more you'll have to say next time around.)
Next, you need to be able to express your ideas in your customers' terms. That means learning their language, their business issues, their priorities. The presenter / discussion leader must keep the discussion focused on the very point of intersection between your road map and their future business imperatives.
Creative, innovative people on your team often like to talk. Listen? Sometimes, not so much. You'll need to ensure a balance between words spoken and heard. (This can be a challenge when the enthusiastic innovator is the CEO!)
You better be able to execute. All the brilliant ideas in the world won't earn you anything (except declining credibility) if they stay up there in PowerPoint.
A few other tips..
Above, I suggested that your presentation should include your mid to long term (3 – 5 years, not next quarter) road map. Multiple benefits are realized through this focus: the longer range ideas will likely have the greatest impact (gee whiz appeal: "Wow, you can do that?"), they will run much lower risk of cannibalizing or stalling any pending projects your sales team is trying to close with your customer, and the dialogue will not come across as a sales pitch (it's not intended to be, except in the broadest sense of relationship building — it's about the ideas; there will be plenty of time to sell later.).
Related to that last point: While your future technology, product and solution ideas can't be fiction, they don't need to be specific in all details, including in the time it will take to reach them. Jerry Swartz, Symbol's founder, used to use the term "Pole Star" to describe this concept. Like Polaris serving as a guide to a hiker, the star may never be reached, but it sets and announces a committed direction. And, every once in a while, your engineers will develop arms long enough to reach that star. We talked about a laser "Scanner on a Chip" for a decade or two before it was realized (scoring points for vision and innovation prowess all along the way).
Some may wonder if this fulsome disclosure of future technology directions might not expose you to the risk of them leaking to your competition. I suppose it can, but with a bit of care, the advantages outweigh the risks. Ask your customers to sign a non-disclosure agreement in advance of the session. It may not afford total protection, but it does some, and it can actually add to the "this is something special" impact of the session. Your real protection should come from the fact that your strategies reflect a unique fit to your company and its competencies (the Colts playbook is not so valuable without Peyton Manning as the quarterback), and from your commitment to execution excellence (are you going to let your competition beat you on your turf?).
In my experience, this stuff works — powerfully. Some years ago, a week or two after one such session, I found myself sharing a golf cart with one of the US's largest retailers' key IT executives (Coincidence? I don't think so…). I can still hear him, saying something to the effect, "You know one of the main reasons we buy more from Symbol than any of your competitors? It's because you bring us more good and innovative thinking about how your technology can transform our business than even our major system platform suppliers," (who were many times Symbol's size). That's Trusted Advisor talk.